Saturday, 21 April 2012

Holy Cow

                      Yesterday I mentioned, in passing, milk jugs. As with anything made by the hand of man, these come in as many forms as you can imagine, (and probably as many more that you can’t). This first one is a small EPNS set of jug and sugar bowl. I’ve had them for years; they more than likely came from a charity shop or fleamarket. They have a vaguely Georgian feel about them, but I imagine they are modernish – they don’t have any marks at all, so I can’t be certain.

I suppose logic dictates that a decorative container for something would reference its source, and if so, it makes sense that a milk jug should be cow shaped. The earliest examples seem to come from the Netherlands, dating from the early eighteenth century. By the middle of that century, John Schuppe, a Dutch silversmith working in London, was producing silver jugs in the shape of cows.

These cow shaped jugs are now called ‘cow creamers’, regardless of whether they are used for milk or cream. Cream is commonly added to coffee, but never to tea (a ‘cream tea’ refers to the clotted cream served with scones and jam), and tea was first served in England in coffeehouses. China tea was introduced into England in 1657, but became popular when Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, introduced it to court in the 1660s. Pepys’s diary entry for September 25th 1660 records, “ … I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before …”. As better quality tea began to be imported, its popularity grew, and it eventually overtook coffee and chocolate to become the national beverage of choice.

Vast amounts of tea were imported, and consequently the price fell, and tea became available to all. Silver cow creamers were popular with the gentry, but in humbler households cheaper ceramic creamers were used. Mine is a modern, plain white one, bought in a kitchen shop somewhere – they remain popular and freely available.

Perhaps the most famous cow creamer in literature is the silver creamer that is central to the plot of P G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters (1938). The book is wonderful (if you haven’t read any Wodehouse, stop what you are doing now, get a copy of almost anything by him and start reading. I recommend the Jeeves stories, but the Blandings books are just as good). Also, the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, are faithful interpretations and can’t be praised too highly. The cow creamer features in the second series.

If you are interested in more cow creamers, there is a spectacularly good website at Craig’s Cow Creamers, which has hundreds of examples.

Milk is produced by female mammals to feed their young. The very definition of a mammal is the presence of mammary glands, which produce the milk, usually through a teat or nipple (barring monotremes, which produce milk from mammary glands in the skin), as the primary source of nutrition for the newborn. Humans are unique in that they are the only mammals to continue to consume milk beyond infancy. After weaning, the production of lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar lactose in milk in the small intestine, significantly declines. Milk passes unabsorbed into the colon, where bacteria metabolise the lactose, this fermentation producing copious amounts of gases, resulting in nausea, bloating, diarrhoea, cramps and flatulence. The majority of humans worldwide are lactose intolerant, and do not consume dairy products. A minority have evolved to be lactose persistent, and continue to produce lactase in adulthood. This ability is relatively recent, dating from the last 10,000 years, and is inextricably linked to developments in animal husbandry. Lactose persistence is a genetic trait, whereas animal husbandry is a cultural trait, and is thus the ability to continue to produce lactase is an example of gene-culture co-evolution. In cultures where animals were kept for dairy products, lactose persistence became prevalent; in, for example, Northern Europe, with the husbandry of cattle, sheep and goats. In other cultures, for example China and Japan, there is no tradition of dairy production and lactose intolerance remains the norm. Lactose persistence developed independently in cultural groups worldwide, so, for example, keeping camels and goats in sub-Saharan Africa led to its separate origins there.

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